Some of you may have heard that the eastern part of the isle of Newfoundland where I keep bees got dinged with a massive snowstorm on January 17th, 2020. The official forecast called for about 90cm (3 feet) of snow. But with winds hitting about 120km/h (75mph), more than a few snowdrifts were taller than me.
I’m guessing a rat did this (January 26th, 2020).
The city of St. John’s and surrounding municipalities were under a State of Emergency for about a week. Everything was shut down. I couldn’t check on some of my hives until the roads were passable nine days later. This is what I found when I checked on them:
This might be a good thing to keep in mind, especially for Newfoundland beekeepers, and especially for Newfoundland beekeepers like me who can see the cold North Atlantic Ocean from their backyard/beeyard.
The first time I noticed a broodless colony was in September of my first or second year, and I thought damn, what am I going to do now? But it wasn’t a queenless colony. The queen had just shut down for the year (stopped laying). Some queens shut down early like that. It seems to be a genetic trait. Russian honey bees supposedly shut down as soon as resources dry up, but Italians will lay sometimes well into November, depending on the temperature. (Most Newfoundland honey bees are a mix of everything, so it can be a challenge to pin down the exact genetic traits at play.) However, I’ve heard from some people who claim that it’s the opposite is true. However one more time, I think it’s the Russian queens that usually shut down early and become broodless before winter.
It’s also good to know that the queen looks smaller when she’s not laying. (I love this book.) I’ve noticed this myself. I’ve also noticed how queens that aren’t well-mated look stubbier than a well-mated queen. Her abdomen is fatter instead of long and slender.
The ABC and XYZ is an excellent beekeeping reference, especially the cheap old timey edition that I have. It seems to have as much relevant information on beekeeping than most modern beekeeping books do.
April 2019 Introduction: This was one of the first times I thought one of my hives had become queenless but wasn’t. Another time was in the fall, September or October, when I found no brood in a hive. That turned out to be normal behaviour for that time of year. Some queens, depending on genetics, stop laying in the fall as soon as it begins to get cold and the days get shorter. Finding no brood in the middle of May, however, especially when all my other hives were full of brood, seemed like a potentially queenless situation to me. But it wasn’t. A beekeeper causing too much stress and disturbance inside the hive can throw the queen off her rhythm and trigger defensive behaviour in the bees (which was a strong possibility during my first couple years of beekeeping), but in this case I think it was genetics again.
In general, queens with Carniolan and Russian genes seem more sensitive to environmental changes, shutting down early in the fall and starting up quickly in the spring. Italian queens, on the other hand, seem to lay eggs well into the fall but are slow to start up in the spring — which is what I think happened in this case.
The rest of this post has been heavily edited.
I checked one of my hives today for the first time this year and saw no sign of the queen. No worker brood of any kind. Just a lot of empty cells and plenty of honey on the sides. I saw about twenty or thirty open drone brood cells about to be capped and some older capped drone cells, but not much else. No fresh day-old eggs. No sealed worker brood. Nothing. Here’s a quick video of some of the broodless frames I found during the inspection (there’s not much to see):
The honey bee colony in my first hive chewed out and discarded most of its drone papae and then shut down so early and so fast last September (compared to my other colony that kept going strong for another few weeks), I thought maybe the queen was dead. But now that same colony seems to be the first one to come back to life this spring. My guess is the bees in old colony #1 have mostly Carniolan genes — cold-climate honey bee genes. I’ve read that Carniolans are more sensitive to environmental changes and behave exactly in this manner.
The bees in Hive #2, on the other hand, foraged and took up syrup well into October last fall, but are showing hardly any signs of life now, which coincides with what I’ve read about Italian honey bees. They go as long as they can in the fall, but supposedly have a harder time coping with long cold winters and mild wet springs (like we have in Newfoundland).
None of this is necessarily correct. But seeing how my first year of beekeeping has often been a guessing game, I have just expressed my best guesses to explain the differences in the behaviour of my two honey bee colonies. They definitely do not behave the same.
Here’s a long boring video of the bees in Hive #1 from earlier today. It shows them coming and going through the bottom entrance. There’s not much to see in the video, no special behaviour, nothing much except for the last few seconds (around the 4:22 mark) when a worker bee pulls out one of her comrades who didn’t make it through the winter. That’s it. I am extremely pleased that they’re so alive.
January 2019 Postscript: This post has been edited and slightly rewritten. Carniolan honey bees seem to share many of the winter-hardy characteristics of Russian honey bees. I could be mistaken about everything I said in this post. But I can say a few things I’ve noticed over the years:
I’ve seen colonies shut down — and become defensive, and I’m taking a Jekyll and Hyde transformation — as early as late August. I load them up with sugar syrup and stay as far away from them as I can until they’re ready for winter. These colonies tend not to have large clusters in the winter, which always worries me, but they kick into high gear at the first hint of warm weather in the spring. A colony like that might have mostly Russian genetics, but Newfoundland honey bees are a mix of everything, so who knows?
I’ve seen queens lay big solid brood patterns well into October when it’s usually pretty damn cold in Newfoundland. My guess is that those are the Italian queens. They just don’t know when to stop. They’re slow to get started in the spring too. They sometimes have gigantic clusters going into winter, which is great, because more bees usually equates to a greater chance of surviving colder winters. But if those colonies aren’t loaded to the max with honey, they can starve. I speak from experience on that one.
Those are the big differences in behaviour that I’ve noticed in my bees over the years. But I’m not sure if any of it is reliable because my dataset, as some scientific beekeepers like to say, is pretty small. I’ve never had more than ten colonies at once and I’ve only been beekeeping since 2010. Much of what I’ve observed could be based on factors that can’t be determined accurately. That’s the uncertainty of backyard or hobbyist beekeeping. We’re talking about a small number of hives where statistically exact observations just aren’t possible.
And by hobbyist I mean someone with no more than nine or ten hives, not dozens or hundreds; someone who has a backyard, not acreage; a kitchen, not a honey house; hands and eyeballs, not microscopes and RNA tests; cheap beekeeping books and the internet, not Masterclass workshops and beekeeping certificates. Not to say that someone in their backyard with two or three hives is less likely to be a good beekeeper than someone with dozens of hives. Some of the most intuitively intelligent beekeepers I know, and marvel at, and continue to learn greatly from, are small-scale, no-frills beekeepers. But many observations of hobbyist beekeepers could easily be a result of statistical anomalies. Even though many backyard beekeepers are as good as any beekeepers I know, it might be better to view some of their observations as good stories, not necessarily good science.
Using myself as example, there could be other explanations for the behaviour of my honey bees that shut down early in the fall and start up early in the spring. It could be Russian genetics at play, or maybe the particular location of the those hives in the fall leaves the bees with less direct sunlight during the day, and seeing how the sun in the spring moves across a different location in the sky (because the location of the sun is always changing), those early-fall-shut-down colonies might get more sun in the spring and therefore spring into action sooner than the other hives. My hives have always been surrounded by trees at least on one or two sides, and the shade of those trees falls on the bees at certain times of the day, and possibly more so at certain times of the year. So what’s the best explanation for the behaviour of the bees, genetics, hive location, or both? I don’t know… You know, I don’t think that’s a good example of the point I was making, but I’ll leave it because it’s something to think about.
One more thing: In my experience, the always-gentle Newfoundland honey bee is a myth. My bees are easy to handle most of the time, but I’ve seen the gentlest bees turn on me overnight for no reason other than the weather got cold, even with honey bees from the Newfoundland Bee Company, probably the most genetically diverse and docile honey bees on the island. But judging from my experience so far, I just don’t think honey bees are in a good mood when they’re cold, whether they’re the fabled Newfoundland honey bee or not.
It’s normal for a colony of honey bees to discard all the male drone bees before winter kicks in. Quoting myself: “Drones are male bees whose only purpose is to mate once with a queen. If they don’t mate, they just hang around the hive and get fed. All the drones are kicked out of the hive to freeze to death as winter kicks in because they’re useless over the winter.”
I knew I would eventually see a large number of dead drones outside the hive once the weather began to cool off. But I didn’t expect to see anything like this…
Dead pupae cleared from the hive over night. (September 15, 2010.)
It’s been cold and wet for the past few days and I guess that was enough motivation for the queen in Hive #1 to say, “Clear out the drones!” I hope that’s all that’s happening. I hope they’re simply cleaning house and removing all the drone pupae before winter kicks in. I was expecting to see piles of dead drones outside the hive one of these days, but piles of dead pupae? It’s a bit sickening, don’t you think?
It’s a bit frightening too. In all the research I’ve done, I’ve never ever heard of anything like this happening. I hope all I’m seeing here is the annual cleaning out of the drones. A disgusting, unnerving variation of it, but nothing to worry about. I hope.
I’m calling the one and only local beekeeper right now to ask about it.
December 23rd, 2010: I recently learned that our bees are a hybrid of Italians, Russians and Carniolans. Russian honey bees react faster — and more dramatically — to environmental changes. The cold snap we had at the time may have triggered a wintering response in the bees, which is natural for Russian bees because they stop rearing brood early in the fall anyway. Drones and drone pupae are discarded when the bees are preparing for winter. Everything I was freaked out about was probably natural behaviour for honey bees bred with Russian genes.
February 12, 2011: From page 76 of The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum: “If, during the season, a dearth occurs and food income is limited or nonexistent, the colony will, in a sense, downsize its population. They preserve worker larvae the longest and remove the oldest drone larvae from the nest first. They simply pull them out and literally eat them outright, conserving the protein, or carry them outside. If the shortage continues, they remove younger and younger drone larva.” That makes sense. All these dead drone pupae were discarded during the fall dearth.